The cry began at the front of the line, where I walked with 12 other leaders of the Walk for Life West Coast 2013. Soft at first, the noise swelled as it passed from person to person, growing in intensity and passion until a tidal wave of sound echoed back as a dull roar from the end of the line a mile and a half away.
The outburst was an encomium for those whose greatness we will never know; a memorial to those faces we will never see; a lament for those whose loss we will never fully realize. We were raising our voices for those who have no voice. And all the horror, grief, and frustration that had accumulated over the continual destruction of inarticulate innocents was contained in that outraged and anguished cry. Yet, for all its heart-wrenching emotion and passion, the cry itself was inarticulate — it too, in some fundamental way, was voiceless. This made me wonder, even as I contributed to the sound, “Is this all that we can do? Is this the extent of the power of my voice?”
Our preparations for the Walk for Life began in earnest two weeks before the event, when my co-leaders and I surveyed our mountainous “To Do” list. In addition to the fundraising and organizational tasks, price changes were forcing us to find a new bus company; at the same time more students than ever before had signed up to attend, meaning we needed to procure a second bus. Our studies suffered, and free time became an alien concept. However, God didn’t merely open doors for us; He took down walls, and our preparation for the Walk went smoothly.
In quick succession we were provided with generous donations from individuals and local churches, a wonderful facility in San Francisco at which to stay, and two buses to transport students. When everything was accomplished, over 220 Thomas Aquinas College students descended on San Francisco — the largest group in the history of the College’s attendance.
Once all the participants assembled on Saturday morning to begin the Walk, our students were called to the head of the line. Two-thirds of the student body worked diligently fulfilling various tasks — carrying the banner, providing security, marshaling and organizing the crowds. Our job was to project an aura of calm self-possession and prayer while moving forward with a determination bred of purpose and conviction. It was at once a humbling and gratifying experience. It wasn’t until the Walk was over and everyone went their separate ways that I began to realize that this is what we are training for; this is why we are the students of Thomas Aquinas College.
For the College’s students, participating in the Walk was a rare occasion to put our studies aside, however briefly, and engage the world on its terms. Although some Catholic schools push their students to be involved in political activism and provide opportunities for action, Thomas Aquinas pulls us away from the world and requests that we exchange our desire for activism for an absolute dedication to its academic program. The College blesses, but doesn’t promote, our trip to San Francisco: It leaves it to us to make the arrangements and fit the trip into our busy schedules. We still have to prepare for classes, which resume on Monday morning, no matter how late we return Sunday night.
For any who view the college years as a chance to expand and explore, this constraint can be frustrating. But rather than simply accepting the limitations and resigning ourselves to a self-inflicted fate, we ought to ask, “What is the purpose of the education we are pursuing?” There are, of course, the obvious, exterior answers: a truly liberal education, an opportunity for spiritual formation, and unique seminar-style classes led by an exceptional teaching faculty. However, as I pondered the development that has occurred over the years in me and my fellow students, I realized that there are many less obvious, interior alterations which run more deeply and are in some way more fundamental to the development Thomas Aquinas College seeks to induce in us.
Through our classes, lectures, and extra-curricular discussions, we encounter a variety of personalities and a significant divergence of ideas: No two people argue in the same way, and no idea is so menial or manifest that it doesn’t deserve a fair hearing. We have learned to release a selfish desire to be right, so that we are truly free to listen to others with respect and compassion. Everyone has validity. Everyone has value. Everyone has some measure of veracity. This understanding proved crucial on the front line of the Walk, where we encountered opposition, none of it civil, much of it profane. Strengthened by our time at the College, we were able to respect and value even the protestors, recognizing the right of the opposition to voice its dissent without feeling threatened.
The constant challenges made to our positions in the classroom also have taught us that our convictions must consist of more than simply feeling a certain way about a topic — we must know why. This perpetual question leads, ever gradually, to an activism born of conviction — a life in service to that truth which we so ardently pursue. Aristotle notes in his Ethics, “It is the true arguments that seem most useful … with a view to life. For since true arguments are in harmony with the deeds, they carry conviction; hence, they prompt those who understand them to live in accord with them.” Thomas Aquinas College seeks to produce young men and women who desire to put truth into action, truth which is not merely felt, but studied, known, and revered. It further seeks to prepare us to defend the truth, by means of reason, wherever it is challenged — whether in the classroom or on the streets of San Francisco.
I have often wondered why, given the training we receive, the College doesn’t encourage us to be more active during our time here. After all, if our formation is so ideal, it seems that we ought to seek opportunities to practice the virtues we’re learning. Why wait until after graduation to become active in the world around us?
It seems to me there are two reasons why the school imposes these limitations. First, activism requires training — and training requires commitment. Extra activities are distracting and sometimes all-consuming; my own participation in organizing the Walk this year caused several days of poor class preparation and even some absences. There is also a necessary order of development: I must first determine my convictions, because I cannot be an activist if I lack true conviction as the motivation for my action. This is our time to prepare, to develop our thoughts, spirits, and hearts. This is our time to learn how to think, enable ourselves, and thus enable others. This is our time to learn to live in service of the truth. The College is not trying to keep us from the world, but to prepare us for it.
Second, Thomas Aquinas College’s seclusion offers students a unique opportunity to form our own characters. This goes beyond the strengthening of our spiritual lives and the peaceful opportunity to develop habits of virtue in a strong moral community. Through the College’s decision not to endorse extra activities, my participation in them becomes truly my own. I don’t take part in such events because they are convenient or because the school creates the opportunity. My activism is not as a TAC pro-lifer, but as Zachary Reynolds, who is being equipped to choose the prolife position for my life and to live in conformity with that conviction.
In this respect, the school’s policy of limiting outside activities becomes its greatest strength; my pure commitment to my formation here produces my ability to lead and to act. Thomas Aquinas College is not merely a beginning from which one may fall away; rather, the education is a firm foundation upon which to build our lives.
Going to San Francisco each year is an opportunity to use the abilities we students are gaining, but one that doesn’t prematurely launch us. Experiencing the Walk for Life makes us excited for what we can do, but also creates hope for what we will do.
My musings came to an end while sitting in a small diner at the end of the day as I realized that there is more to our voice than an impassioned cry; that we are capable of so much more than mere noise. Through Thomas Aquinas College’s dedication to purpose and each student’s dedication to the education it offers, we are developing voices that are worthy of being heard and that will have something of value to say.